Spotlight: The Infamous Stringdusters
When The Infamous Stringdusters galloped onto the bluegrass scene in 2007, it was like the doors had been thrown open on a century-old barn dance and a breath of fresh air was blown across its dusty wooden floor.
People who loved bluegrass loved the Stringdusters’ way of taking care of business: a deep respect for tradition, a boisterously energetic stage presence and a formidable degree of musicianship. The International Bluegrass Music Association jumped onboard, too, exalting them with three major awards (including Album of the Year for their debut set, Fork in the Road ).
The following year brought even more success as their self-titled sophomore collection climbed to the No. 1 spot on the bluegrass charts, even as founding member Chris Eldridge departed the band for another forward-thinking bluegrass outfit, the Punch Brothers. A couple of years later, their third long player, Things That Fly reached No. 2 on the charts.
But even as the band was rumbling down the road paved with two-step travel songs and dreams of starry-eyed girls back home, there was always a strategic plan to expand their audience beyond the gentile, have-a-seat atmosphere of performing arts centers and turn-of-the-century theaters.
“We had immediate success in the bluegrass world because that’s where we were playing as sidemen, that’s where we had connections,” says banjo player Chris Pandolfi shortly before a show in Portland, Ore. this winter. “We discovered very quickly though that, as awesome as it is, the bluegrass world is pretty small.”
“We weren’t kids when we started the band,” adds bassist Travis Book, who signed on with the band after a particularly “epic jam session.” “We had people who were married, who had mortgages, things like that. Real world stuff forced us—for better or worse—to at least consider things from a business perspective.”
The first step in the band’s plan to expand their audience was to spend some time outside of their adopted home of Nashville, Tenn.—a place guitarist Andy Falco calls “the graduate school of bluegrass.” Thanks to some of Book’s Colorado connections, they found themselves out West, playing shows to younger crowds that were willing to get up and dance.
“It was around that time,” says guitarist Andy Hall, “that we first experienced what it was like to play for a standing crowd, for people who were ready to party. It opened our eyes up to a different way, to a different world.”
Slowly but surely, the energy of their new found audiences began to inform their songwriting, inspiring the band to not only draw from their “graduate studies” in bluegrass, but also from their shared enthusiasm for bands like the Grateful Dead, New Riders of the Purple Sage and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
Simultaneously, the band made a conscious decision to change their approach in the recording studio. After working with legendary Blue Highway picker Tim Stafford to produce Fork in the Road, the Stringdusters called on the more eclectic ears of one-time Hot Rize member Tim O’Brien for their second album. For their final of three albums on Sugar Hill, Things That Fly, the band self-produced with the help Gary Paczosa, known for his work with mainstream country artists like Kathy Mattea and Dierks Bentley.
For their most latest set, Silver Sky —recently expanded into a deluxe edition with an extra disc of live recordings—the band took an even greater leap of faith, enlisting the input of Billy Hume, best known for producing hip-hop artists like Ludacris and Nas.
“We wanted to do something different,” says Pandolfi, who credits the band’s manager, Michael Hallenby, for teaming them with Hume. “We were looking for someone who was going to be a little more focused on the sonic element of the recording. We realized that was something that was informing the way we were performing in the studio.”
The result of Hume’s decidedly non-bluegrass approach to the band’s songs resulted in a record that, indeed, occupies a sonic space seldom heard on a bluegrass recording. Book’s bass playing takes on a greater role in the band’s sound, the percussion of the strings comes to the forefront and the vocal lines take on a more luxurious texture than ever before. While it’s still a bluegrass record, Silver Sky marks still another step in the band’s ongoing transformation.
“In the beginning,” relates fiddle player Jeremy Garrett, “we had some pressure to be more traditional than we are now. It wasn’t like we were playing music to please people; it was just where we were coming from. But the longer we play together, the more risks we’re able to take with our material.”
Or, as Hall puts it: “It’s like becoming your own thing instead of being a band that plays a particular style.”
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